All's Well That Ends Well

William Shakespeare
Swan, Stratford
(2003)

When the RSC announced that Dame Judi Dench would be making her first appearance with the Company for 24 years, theatregoers with only a minimal interest in the Bard were anxious to get tickets. Such is the esteem in which she's held that it didn't really matter that she was appearing in one of Shakespeare's least-known comedies.

In reality Dame Judi has a lot in common with many of her fans: she'd never seen All's Well and confessed she didn't know anything about it.

By the end though you're left with a slight sense of bewilderment - not with the production itself but the fact that so few directors are prepared to tackle All's Well, which is so often bracketed with Shakespeare's problem plays Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida.

Dame Judi's role as the Countess of Rossillion is admittedly only a minor one, yet she shows what a magnificent actress she is without detracting from the performances of those around her. In fact the rest of the cast appear to relish her presence rather than being overawed by her and give similarly impressive portrayals.

The intimacy of the Swan allows you to appreciate Dame Judi's inestimable talent. She gives a master class in her craft, having to use only a face muscle to convey a change in emotion and bringing out the beauty of Shakespeare's language.

The plot involves the Countess realising that Helena, the orphaned daughter of a doctor, is in love with her son Bertram, despite their social differences. He leaves Rossillion to serve at the court in Paris.

Helena follows and cures the seriously ill king with one of her late father's remedies. The king promises Helena anything she wants, so she asks for Bertram as her husband. Bertram is outraged and goes through with the wedding but leaves for the wars before they have consummated the marriage.

Bertram leaves Helena a letter swearing he won't accept her as his wife until she can perform the impossible - get his ancestral ring from his finger and bear him a child. In despair she travels to Florence as a pilgrim where Bertram is trying to seduce a local girl, Diana. She agrees to accept Bertram's advances if he gives her his ring. At the crucial moment Helena takes Diana's place in her bed. Later Helena appears and reveals the truth. Bertram repents and promises to love Helena.

Any failings appear to be in Shakespeare's writing rather than the production. It seems strange that Bertram should find Helena socially beneath him yet she has been brought up by the Countess as a young lady would have been. All the more baffling is Helena's love for a man who has few redeeming characteristics.

Claudie Blakley, in her debut RSC season, is a delightful Helena, determined to get what she wants and not averse to tricking her husband to get the upper hand. We're going to see a lot more of Blakley; she shows just how original and undervalued the role of Helena is.

Jamie Glover is suitably cold and colourless as Bertram in direct contrast to Guy Henry, his follower Parolles, who comes over as witty, likeable and endearing despite being a liar and a coward.

There is also a superb performance from Gary Waldhorn as the King of France, frail, pained and looking close to death until Helena's potion turns him into a strong, respected leader.

With a clever set by Stephen Brimson Lewis - Bertram's riding into war is especially impressive - and exquisite costumes by Deirdre Clancy, Gregory Doran's production is fairly simplistic yet very effective.

This is what the RSC does best: excellent acting presented without any gimmicks in a way that the Bard would have been proud of. The play ought now to increase in popularity and not solely because of Dame Judi. All's well throughout.

"All's Well That Ends Well" runs until February 7th before transferring to the West End

Steve Orme